New claims for unemployment benefits fell as expected last week, with the four-week moving average dropping to it lowest level in more than 2-1/2 years, showing the labor market healing was becoming entrenched.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 382,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 383,000. The prior week's figure was revised up to 387,000 from the previously reported 385,000.

The four-week moving average of unemployment claims -- a better measure of underlying trends - dropped 1,500 to 385,250, the lowest since mid-July 2008 and holding below the 400,000 level for a fourth straight week.

A reading below 400,000 is generally associated with steady job growth, which until recently had eluded the economic recovery. Employers created 192,000 jobs in February, the most in nine months, after adding a paltry 63,000 new workers in January.

The Federal Reserve has acknowledged the improvement in labor market conditions and is generally expected to conclude its $600 billion government bond buying program at the end of June.

A Labor Department official said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data and described the report as clean.

The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 2,000 to 3.72 million in the week ended March 12, the lowest level since September 2008.

The continuing claims data covered the week for the household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived. The jobless rate dipped to 8.9 percent in February from 9.0 percent in January and has dropped 0.9 percentage point in the past three months.

Economists had expected so-called continuing claims to fall to 3.70 million from a previously reported 3.71 million.

The number of people on emergency unemployment benefits rose 85,712 to 3.63 million in the week ended March 5, the latest week for which data is available. A total of 8.77 million people were claiming unemployment benefits during that period under all programs.